Viability of Bakun Dam project threatened

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bakun catchment loggedEstablishing plantations in the 1.5 million hectares Bakun Catchment is likely to threaten the viability of the Bakun Dam and the Bakun HEP, warns Philip Khoo. The Sarawak state government must provide some answers quickly.

To counter criticisms against the Bakun Hydroelectric Project, several federal ministers had promised that the 1.5 million-hectare Bakun catchment would be gazetted to conserve the forest and protect the investment in the dam. Indeed, the then deputy prime minister was quoted on 12 March 1996 as saying that “we should realise that we will be gazetting a catchment area covering 1.5 million hectares which may not have been created if the Bakun project is not implemented.”

Until now, however, the catchment continues to be intensively logged. Worse, large parts of it are either in the process of being clear-felled for plantation or have been licensed out for the same purpose. In short, not only has the catchment not been gazetted, it is being actively undermined — with the approval of the Sarawak state government.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) recently brought this to the attention of the public when they produced evidence that the Sarawak state government had approved at least three large plantation projects in the Bakun catchment between 1999 and 2002.  None of the mainstream newspapers carried SAM’s press statement and conference.

The three plantation projects are:
•    the Shin Yang Forest Plantation covering almost 156,000 hectares,
•    the Bahau-Linau Forest Plantation covering over 108,000 hectares, and
•    the Merirai-Balui Forest Plantation on almost 56,000 hectares.

The Bahau-Linau and Merirai-Balui Forest Plantations are under Rimbunan Hijau while the Shin Yang Forest Plantation is under Shin Yang Forestry. All three are so-called plantation forests, to be planted with mainly acacia mangium, widely considered to be an invasive exotic species and a potential fire hazard.

A proportion of the plantations can be and has been planted with oil palm for one cycle — the Sarawak state government’s way of helping the companies with their cash flow, as oil palm will produce a yield in four years, while the acacia is projected for harvesting in 12-15 years.

These three plantations alone mean that at least 10 per cent of the catchment is being converted to plantation. If, in fact, more plantations have been licensed, then the proportion of catchment to be converted to plantation will rise correspondingly.

Moreover, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the projects suggest that a large part of the catchment is badly degraded due to past and ongoing logging activities.

Thus, giving the lie to previous claims that logging was sustainable and selective, the EIAs give as justification for the projects the badly degraded condition of the logged-over forest, with little likelihood of regeneration.

The three areas in question have been subject to logging only since the late 1980s or early 1990s. The same is generally true of the overall Bakun catchment.

Thus, as the three areas in question were or are logged by the same operators as the rest of the Bakun catchment, it can be concluded that the bulk of the catchment is in similar degraded condition — with serious negative implications for the integrity of the catchment. The integrity of a catchment is the primary asset of a dam and has implications for its water quality and its water-regulating properties. In the case of a hydro-electric dam, this has implications for its power-generating capacity.

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Viability threatened

In their press release, Sahabat Alam Malaysia cited the Bakun EIA reports prepared about ten years ago which noted that “the annual sediment load in the catchment area had jumped from 11 (million) to 29 million tonnes between 1983 and 1993 alone” and attributed this “to the advent of timber harvesting activities in the area”.

SAM also cited he Environmental Management Plan (EMP) for Bakun (attached to the EIA Reports), which observed that “future logging should be controlled to reduce siltation and the sediment reaching the reservoir”. The EMP also stated that these concerns applied to “land clearing in the catchment above the reservoir inundation limit” and that “prudent land use management for the catchment must be introduced” based on the principle that the highest and best use of the catchment is the “uninterrupted supply of quality water to the reservoir”.

Based on these findings from the EIA and EMP reports, SAM warned that “the establishment of plantations in the upstream reaches of Bakun will surely spell disaster for the dam since such plantations will entail clear-cutting and periodic harvesting and an increase in erosion and siltation rates”.

The tree plantations will be operating on a 15-year cycle while the oil palm will operate on a 20-year cycle.

Additionally, the areas where the plantations are being established include sites which were cleared of their original residents. One of the reasons given for the resettlement was that if the local native inhabitants were allowed to continue to reside within the catchment area, their activities would compromise the integrity of the catchment. Why, then, did the state government approve these plantation projects and was the federal government informed of them?

SAM believes that these approvals are due to a lack of transparency in land and forest governance matters in Sarawak: the law in Sarawak excludes public participation in the EIA process, unless the project proponent so desires. In other words, the public does not have the opportunity to give feedback prior to EIA approvals. Instead, the EIA approvals for the three plantation projects above were decided by the Natural Resources and Environment Board (NREB), a division of the Ministry of Planning and Resource Management, headed by the Sarawak Chief Minister himself.

But these projects should never have even gone to the EIA stage. In the first place, the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), which approves licences for plantations in forest areas should have flagged these projects as “highly sensitive” for a number of reasons, including:
•    these forests have not been through even one logging cycle, and
•    they are within the Bakun catchment.

Indeed, the conversion from forest to plantation in at least one of the three areas occurred while the area is still being actively logged by another timber company.

Requests for conversion, however, are routed through the Ministry of Resource Planning, under the Chief Minister. Such requests are then forwarded to the SFC for approval. At the SFC, such requests are taken, rightly or wrongly, as expressive of the desire of the Ministry, specifically the Minister. The authoritarian culture and atmosphere in the state means that it would be a brave person indeed who would dare go against such a perceived desire.

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The economics

Apart from the reversal of a promise to gazette the catchment area and the need to amend the law to ensure greater transparency, the large amounts of public funds that have been invested in the Bakun HEP are at risk.

About RM9 billion will be spent on the dam when completed, if there are no major cost overruns. Possibly another RM9 billion will be invested to lay 700km of submarine cables – making it the world’s longest undersea electricity transmission link – and 900 km of overland cables to carry the electricity generated from Sarawak to the peninsula.

By allowing these plantations to be established and by not controlling or stopping the on-going logging in the catchment, the Sarawak government is placing the interests of private companies over the interests of the public, in whose name these massive amounts of money have and will be expended.

Moreover, the employment to be created as a result of plantation development will cater largely for foreign rather than Sarawakian natives, who have avoided employment in the plantations due to the poor working conditions and the very low wages of around RM8-12 a day. As it is, there are already parts of Sarawak with significant plantation development where foreign workers make up 20 per cent or more of the population.

Ironically, these foreign plantation workers will now reside within a catchment which was cleared of its original bumiputera inhabitants to make way for the Bakun Dam on the grounds that their activities might impact negatively on the catchment and the dam. Nothing that the original bumiputera inhabitants habitually do would have had anything near the negative impact of these plantation developments and the on-going logging.

The degradation of the catchment also raises questions about the dam’s actual power=generating capacity and its maintenance costs.

Under such circumstances, peninsula-based industries and consumers hoping to rely on cheap electric power transmitted from Bakun should think again. Aside from security and environmental concerns, the Federal Government will need to seriously re-assess the decision to invest in the submarine cables and its belief that there is all this hydro-power capacity in Sarawak: the state of the Bakun catchment is not peculiar to Bakun, but is similar to the state of the catchment of proposed hydro-electric dams in the Balleh, the Murum and so on.

Failure to do so may commit the peninsula to higher costs of electricity. For instance, judging by the prices being cited some years back, should the generating capacity of Bakun drop by, say, 20 per cent, then it is probable the consumer price of power from Bakun will rise above the current domestic rates of 21 sen per kWh enjoyed by consumers in the peninsula.

In view of these threats to the sustainability and economics of the dam and keeping in mind the huge investment of public funds involved, the Sarawak government must be accountable and transparent about the status of the Bakun Dam and its catchment area. How much of the catchment area has been licensed for conversion to plantation use? How much of the catchment area has been licensed for re-entry logging which will only further degrade the remaining forest? What assessments, if any, have been made as to what such conversion and re-entry logging will do to the hydrological regime and to the rate of siltation? What happened to promises of gazetting the catchment area? And not least, why continue to deny the people the right to scrutinise and provide feedback on the EIA reports?

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Finally, as Suhakam has conducted a study of the plight of the natives in the Bakun area, we call upon the Commissioners to make public the results of their investigation and to assume a more pro-active role.


NEP = No Equity for Penan?

The EIA for the Shin Yang Forest Plantation is fatally flawed. It states that there are no native communities within the proposed plantation, hence there is no need to make any provisions for them.

This is just plain false.

Not only are there native communities within the proposed – or rather, existing – plantation, but they have been there for at least hundreds of years. All these native communities are Penan. The company should have known the EIA claim to be false since one of the Penan communities lives beyond a gate set up by the company and another of the communities had its longhouse constructed by a subsidiary of the company, also a timber operator in the area, around 1992.

Despite this falsehood, the EIA was approved without conditions.

The net result is that the Penan who, as recently as 20 years ago – in some cases, as recently as a dozen years ago — were living unmolested in largely primary forest now find themselves marooned in a sterile laterite landscape, without forest, without land, with all their rights dismissed, and being told to depend upon the largesse of the company.

Indeed, these Penan, amongst the most marginalised groups in the country, have been denied repeated attempts to obtain identity cards. Thus, some 90 per cent of the Penan in this area are without ICs. Thus, even if they could survive on employment in the plantation, they cannot get legal employment.

In view of what is stated in the Ninth Malaysian Plan, it is long overdue for the Economic Planning Unit in the Prime Minister’s Department to come down hard on the Sarawak state government for their contempt of the rights of the Penan.

At the very least, given that the forest has been cleared, the Penan in the area should be given their 30 per cent equity in the plantation. Failure to do so would constitute ample proof of the suspicion that the NEP – despite its initial honourable objectives — has become the Never Ending Plunder for the rich and politically well connected, and No Equity for Penan and all those bumiputera who are poor and powerless.

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